Fixing the Highway Within

Reflection for the Second Sunday of Advent .Year B. 2017
– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
Archway, London


People have always pondered the meaning of the liturgical symbol IHS usually found on vestments and altar clothes.

During my Junior Seminary days, one of the clowns in my class suggested that it might be Jesus saying ‘I Have Suffered’.

Now, while the passion of Jesus was exceptional, one group that has also known suffering are the Jews. From a 430 years of slavery in Egypt, they had to make a tortuous 40 years of journey through the desert to get to the Promised Land. Subsequently, they were taken from captivity into captivity; first by the Assyrians (740 BC), then the Babylonians with the destruction of their first Temple (586 BC) and the Romans (63 BC) with the destruction of their second Temple (70 AD). Consequently, they were scattered around the world. Yet, even in their diaspora (exile) they were not spared; only recently, during the WW II, Hitler aimed to exterminate them in the Nazi Holocaust (1933 – 1945). And they supposed to be the people of God!

One of their lowest moments must be during the Babylonian captivity when the king Nebuchadnezzar not only destroyed their Temple (their most prized possession) but also desecrated the sacred vessels, using them on his dining table.

It was during this heartbreaking experience that they sang their famous dirge ‘By the rivers of Babylon…’ Though they suffered as a consequence of their unfaithfulness to God with whom they had a covenant, it got to a point where God could no longer bear their suffering. So, through the prophet Isaiah in today’s First Reading He reached out in compassion to them: “Console my people, console them; tell them that their time of slavery is ended, that they have paid enough price for their sins. Shout without fear and announce to them ‘Here is your God!”

Yet, for this assurance to come true, they must “prepare the way for the Lord” as the prophet continued. They must “make a straight highway for God; every valley must be filled in and every mountain laid low, every cliff must become a plain.” Then, “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed!”

What is the meaning of these ‘road maintenance’ conditions? Well, God knows that having gone through all the bitter experiences, they would have very bitter heart towards all the people that have maltreated them and even towards God for allowing such evils befall them. God therefore demands that they bring down the ‘mountain’ of bitterness and resentment in their heart.

On the other hand, they would have become low in spirit and down in faith, hence God asks that they fill up the ‘valleys’ of laxity and apathy. Fixing these defects will make it conducive for God to come into their lives to restore peace.

The lesson for us is that no matter how deprived or deserving of God’s mercy we are, help would only come if we create the enabling atmosphere by getting rid of bitterness and waking from our moral apathy.

John the Baptist’s calling out of the people into the open desert in the Gospel furthermore underscores this need for them to come out of their sulking withdrawal into the open for God to find them.

To go into the desert also means to let go through the normal props of life (the things we normally fall back on every day), such as we often find in our job, in relationships, in routine religious practices, and even in sin. God cannot do much with us as long as we cling on these as what ultimately gives meaning to our lives. When the heart is full no one can come into it.
The desert, in the bible, had always meant a place of encounter with God.

It was in the desert that the people of Israel met God and entered into a covenant with Him; to become His people and Him, their God. But first they had to give up all the things that make for the good life they supposedly enjoyed in Egypt as they once recalled with nostalgia “the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (Numbers 11:5).

Before beginning his public ministry, Jesus also spent forty days and nights in the desert discovering and deepening his personal relationship with God.

By calling the people into the desert John was calling them to let go of their false hopes and securities and learn to hope and trust in God alone.
By his own simple lifestyle, his dressing and eating habits, John showed that the meaning of life is not to be found in the abundance of material possessions but in relationship with God.

Simplicity of life and detachment from unnecessary cares and worries of social life frees the heart for a personal relationship with God.

Advent calls us out into the desert. To go into the desert means abandoning our usual hiding places some of which can be so “dark”, and putting ourselves where God can easily reach us. If we are out of darkness, the Lord will find us at peace when he comes.

As St. Peter notes in the Second Reading, the coming of the Lord does not fill his friends with fear and anxiety but rather with a joyful anticipation of a dear friend.

During this advent, let us therefore think of the changes we could make in our own lives both now and in the New Year. What kind of person do I think God would like me to be? Personal conversion is the best gift one could give to oneself this season.

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